WARNING – INCLUDES SPOILERS!
While I was away, there was a welcome return for misanthropic satirist Charlie Brooker’s twisted anthology show of future shock, Black Mirror. Like the first series, this was a trio of darkly comic tales extrapolating what society’s relationship with rapidly developing technology might turn into if things went badly; Brooker being such a pessimist, they were hardly Utopian Star Trek-style futures he envisioned.
Unlike the first series, this time all three tales were penned by Brooker himself, with perhaps a greater consistency of tone as a result. I gather I’m in a minority, but I thought the least successful of the first series’ stories was the only one in which he had no writing involvement, Jesse Armstrong’s The Entire History of You; by no means bad or uninteresting, it still seemed to lack the scalpel-like precision of Brooker’s satirical ideas.
It would be hard to top the jaw-dropping audacity of last year’s series opener, with its jet-black humorous scenario of Prime Minister Rory Kinnear forced by social media to have sex with a pig on live TV. Sensibly, Brooker didn’t even try, instead presenting us with a low-key, sad and actually rather tender story of love, loss, and how technology can warp grief even while purporting to help.
Be Right Back
It’s worth noting that Brooker’s writing is not all about clever or vitriolic ideas and concepts; he can actually write good, believable characters and dialogue. Be Right Back was a case in point. Within the first couple of minutes, the story gave us a likeable, convincing pair of young lovers – Hayley Atwell as Martha and the swoonsome Domhnall Gleeson (you may remember him as Bill Weasley out of Harry Potter) as Ash.
Clever direction established early that they lived in a fairly near future with, nonetheless, some significant advances in technology. Iphones are now roughly the thickness of a credit card, satnavs can actually drive your car, and there was mention of newly developed “synthetic flesh”.
Having taken time to make us like our young couple against this backdrop, and to establish that Ash was a compulsive social media user rarely off his smartphone, the story then gave us the wrench that he was killed in a car crash, leaving his young wife bereft. Twisted with grief, she was shocked to be approached by a friend at Ash’s wake who offered “something that could help”.
That something, it transpired, was a web-based AI system which could simulate communication from her dead husband, by means of trawling through his social media interactions, analysing them, and reproducing a convincing simulacrum. Martha’s initial repulsion at the very idea changed to curiosity when she discovered that she was now pregnant with Ash’s child, and before long, she was IMing the faux-Ash, then able to even talk to him on the phone.
So far, so morbid; plainly this is not the best way to deal with grief, and would obviously pervert the very concept of moving on from loss. Think it seems implausible? Think again, as Brooker wryly noted in a recent Guardian column: “No sooner had the credits rolled than people were pointing me in the direction of a company claiming to offer that very service. Turns out I needn’t have bothered writing a script. I could’ve just typed out the URL and asked them to televise that instead.”
But in the oh-so-convenient near-future, recreating your loved ones can go further than just a few webchats and phone calls. Using that synthetic flesh mentioned earlier, Martha was able to obtain a “blank” synthetic person on which to imprint Ash’s recreated personality.
Trouble is, the version of us we present on the net is usually a whitewashed, idealised aspect of the real thing – another interesting idea lurking at the back of this story. So the recreated Ash was disconcertingly slightly better-looking than the real thing, as he’d always uploaded photos where he thought he looked good. I don’t know whether this was a bit of clever CG or simple makeup and hair, but I actually thought it might be Domhnall Gleeson’s brother – but no, it was your man himself, looking subtly but noticeably different. Tidier hair, smoother skin, no stubble – and he was lacking the mole on his chest that Martha remembered, because it wasn’t in his online photos.
That wasn’t the only aspect of him he left off the net either, as Martha discovered; his sexual performance was better, but not like she remembered. Clone-Ash earnestly informed her that his predecessor had never discussed that online, and he was actually programmed to simulate various porn films.
Love’s undead dream continued to deteriorate, as Martha gradually realised that she was dealing with, basically, a compliant robot implanted with the merest shade of her real husband. “You’re just a ripple!” she sobbed. “You’re not enough of him!”
Eventually, having failed to persuade Clone-Ash to jump off a cliff due to his Ash-accurate reluctance to do so, Martha was shown a few years later with her daughter, who loved nothing more than to visit her ‘father’ where he waited patiently, stored in the attic. Martha, sobbing at the bottom of the stairs, was plainly never going to move on with her life.
It was tenderly and subtly played, with heartwrenching performances from Atwell and Gleeson. Gleeson, in particular, supplied two subtly distinctive performances as the charming Ash and his disturbingly obedient clone. So convincingly charming was he in delivering Brooker’s dialogue that I think I may be a little in love with him now.
This was a clever, high-concept tale that worked well because it focused so closely on one concept, rather than the last series’ frequent attempts to bundle myriad ideas into one story. As it’s Black Mirror’s basic remit, technology was shown as something to worry about rather than to embrace. I did find myself reminded at times of the film of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, a similarly low key tale of the human consequences of technology (and which also featured Domhnall Gleeson). But how much more interesting (albeit a different story) might it have been if Martha had been able to obtain an indistinguishable copy of her dead husband?
The second of Charlie Brooker’s darkly satirical Black Mirror stories for this year, White Bear lacked the tender intimacy of Be Right Back, but was probably more of a crowd-pleaser. A deceptively simple tale of an apparent post-apocalypse, it had action aplenty, some clever musings on our culture of voyeuristic exploitation, and one hell of a twist (even though I did pretty much see it coming).
It opened in time-honoured post-apocalypse fashion (see also Day of the Triffids, 28 Days Later) with someone waking up to find the world irrevocably changed overnight, and wondering what the heck had happened.
Victoria (Lenora Critchlow, reminding us that she’s got more strings to her bow than Being Human’s Annie) wakes, amnesiac, in a chair in an unfamiliar house. Wandering outside, she’s mystified to find her pleas for help ignored by silent onlookers, all filming her with their smartphones. Even throwing sticks at them can’t elicit a response. But Victoria (we don’t find out her name until much later) has more to worry about when a masked figure with a shotgun does pay attention to her, blasting away with both barrels.
Falling in with a pair of young people similarly unaffected by what’s going on, Victoria is informed of the situation; a mysterious signal broadcast to every TV, computer and smartphone has turned almost the entire populace into perma-filming voyeurs, pointing cameras at everything but unwilling/unable to get involved in anything.
It felt like a pointed comment on what I suppose you could call the ‘YouTube Generation’, where people would rather film an event than become involved in it. Rather like those apocryphal stereotypes of Americans who, confronted with a man having a heart attack, reach for their phone not to call an ambulance but to film it happening.
Victoria, troubled by occasional visions of a girl she thinks might her daughter, teams up with hardbitten survivor Jem (her companion having been killed by the man with the gun), and together they set off to destroy the nearby White Bear transmitter from which the signal seems to be emanating. Along the way, they are pursued by the brutal Hunters, sinister figures in animal masks wielding bizarre weapons such as electric carving knives.
It was well-enough done as a post apocalyptic thriller to be enjoyable, but at this point I was thinking I’d been here before. Even the unusual premise of the ‘apocalypse’ seemed familiar; not least from Stephen King’s excellent (but itself derivative) Cell. But then Brooker cleverly pulled the rug out from under it by revealing that the whole thing was a sham.
I must admit, I was half expecting something like that to happen. As with Number Six in The Prisoner, it was becoming increasingly clear that the whole situation had been organised for the benefit of just one person. But the twist, predictable though it might have been, set a whole new bunch of troubling questions, this time relating to justice and how technology has and will influence society’s view of it.
As the wall of the White Bear control room opened up to reveal that Victoria was centre stage in front of a jeering, heckling audience, one of the ‘Hunters’ revealed the truth about her. She was the accessory in a notorious, brutal child murder, having used a cellphone to film the death of the little girl she’d been having visions of. Her partner in crime having taken the suicidey way out, she was the only one left to face society’s justice. Or vengeance.
For every night, she had her memory wiped with massive ECT treatment, to wake every day facing the same nightmare she’d just lived through. And the silent, filming onlookers weren’t brainwiped zombies after all – they were spectators, paying for the spectacle of watching/recording Victoria’s ordeal at the ‘White Bear Justice Park’, so named after the dead girl’s teddy bear.
As a closing credit montage revealed the mechanisms behind all this, the viewer was left with some very troubling questions. Victoria’s complicity in the girl’s death was having filmed her suffering; her punishment was that, every day for an unknown period of time, ghoulish onlookers should film hers. Apart from the ethical question that sets up about whether her (presumably state-sponsored) persecutors had any kind of moral high ground, there were other issues to think about. Should ‘the punishment fit the crime’ by being ‘an eye for an eye’?
With crimes involving children being so emotive, it seemed plausible that there would be a ready made audience eager to pay for complicity in the torture of a child killer. But does that make them any better, morally, than she is? And with her memory wiped anyway, was Victoria even the person who deserved punishment any more, or just a tabula rasa with her guilt erased along with her identity?
These searching questions made White Bear possibly the meatiest of this trio of stories, with an excellent performance from Lenora Critchlow and some gripping direction by Carl Tibbetts. Even so, I still found the quiet, painful intimacy of Be Right Back somehow more satisfying than the slam bang action and Big Issues on display here. Just a personal feeling, I guess.
The Waldo Moment
Like last year, I found the final of this year’s trio of Black Mirror stories to be the least satisfying. Also like last year, this is not, in itself, a damning criticism. The Waldo Moment was intriguing, blackly funny and very watchable. But Charlie Brooker sets himself a very high standard, and I wasn’t sure it quite had the depth of either of the previous two.
For me, two things counted against it. First, it tried to take aim at perhaps too many targets in its satire, not really hitting any of them squarely enough; and secondly, in its essentials, I’d seen it before. The story of an unlikely candidate righteously upsetting the political applecart before having his own integrity corrupted and realising You Can’t Beat the System is as old as the hills – go back and look at 1939’s classic Mr Smith Goes to Washington for one decades-old example.
So the story of a cartoon bear (not entirely dissimilar to the one out of Bo Selecta) from a late night satire show (not entirely dissimilar to Brooker’s own Ten O’Clock Show) who ‘interviews’ unsuspecting celebrities (not entirely dissimilar to Ali G) and becomes an unlikely candidate in a by-election caused by the disgrace of the local MP didn’t feel that fresh.
It did gain from serendipitous timeliness, being broadcast in the same week as the Eastleigh by-election following the disgrace of MP Chris Huhne and the paralysis of Italy’s political system after comedian and protest candidate Beppe Grillo left no party with an overall majority. In light of all that, it would be nice to credit Charlie Brooker with some form of clairvoyance; but given his well-documented hatred of ‘psychics’, I doubt he’d thank me.
Again, though, he wrote some likeable (and some not so likeable) convincing characters. Central to the story was shy, introverted comedian Jamie (Daniel Rigby, who you may remember winning a BAFTA for playing Eric Morecambe), who can only shed his inhibitions when voicing and operating the computer generated Waldo. As the breakout character from the show, Waldo is given his own series, but faces the same problem Ali G did – by now, everyone’s wise to the gag and unlikely to get fooled. After a throwaway remark though, the perfect scenario is conceived; get Waldo to run interference in the by election for ‘Stentonford and Hersham East’ (actually High Wycombe, but they weren’t going to call it that).
From then on, it was a fairly familiar tale of political campaigning, which was fun but has been done more uproariously on shows like The Thick of It. Waldo, of course, found himself at the centre of a spiral of popularity, dragging his unwilling creator (who wanted nothing to do with politics) with him. From then on, as is customary in such stories, it was just a matter of time until he found himself sucked into the system he despised.
Along the way, Jamie had a fling with the Labour candidate, who confessed she was only standing as a ‘training’ sort of thing; rejecting him at the urging of her worried election agent, she found herself on the sharp end of Waldo’s tongue as he revealed this on a panel show. The script took it for granted (a little lazy, Charlie) that the Tory candidate would be contemptible, instead saving most of its venom for the kind of pointless exercise Labour were engaged in here. It did, amusingly, treat the Lib Dems as purposeless crutches for their Tory allies; Jamie referred to the Lib Dem candidate as “just a glass of water”.
There is a general disillusionment with the state of British politics at the moment (which I share), based on the perception that no party properly represents the mass of Britons any more. Charlie Brooker, I’m sure, feels the same way, but the jibes here, fun though they were, seemed a little too easy. His ideas are usually more complex and nuanced than this.
The dark edge came with the appearance of a shadowy American in a suit from “the Agency” (I’m sure you can guess which one), who realised the potential of an image-friendly, all-purpose artificial politician, one who could carry whatever message was considered expedient. Fairly chilling, but again, we’ve been here before. The 1985 Max Headroom pilot film has a villain realising the same thing – “Imagine that. All your politicians in little boxes.”
Ultimately, in time-honoured fashion, Jamie rebelled against the monster he’d created, only to find it couldn’t be stopped. With Waldo’s operation taken over by loathsome producer and rights owner Jack Napier (a slimy Jason Flemyng, in a role curiously named after the Joker from the 1989 Batman), Jamie found himself cast out. Waldo didn’t win the by-election, but a closing credit montage revealed him to have made it to global domination, while stormtrooper like police thugs beat the now-homeless Jamie for his defiance of the cute blue bear.
Yes, it was fun, and Daniel Rigby was excellent as the shy, disillusioned Jamie. But compared to the questions raised by the previous two tales, this felt like it picked easier targets; politics, the popularity hungry media, shadowy intelligence agencies. After the moral issues raised in the previous instalments, this almost felt light and fluffy.
It’s been another good run for Black Mirror, and I rather hope Brooker has enough ideas for more. Those who don’t like it – and I can accept the criticism that its vogueishness is liable to quickly date it – have compared it unfavourably to The Twilight Zone. But that’s missing the point a bit. Any concept-based anthology show can be compared to The Twilight Zone, it set the benchmark for this kind of thing. In my view at least, Black Mirror reaches that benchmark perfectly comfortably.